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Ruth Carter: looking forward to 2021

by EN

In her first editorial for EN, guest editor Ruth Carter says 2021 will be the year when the exhibitions industry will be at its finest

Firstly, many thanks to all of you on your good wishes for my stint as guest editor at EN over the next few months. I join at a time of great upheaval, great change but also great opportunity. We are an industry which loathes to stand still and 2021, I am sure, will show us at our finest. I promise to showcase the talent in our industry, the changes and new directions that we can anticipate, as well as calling out things that generally interest me as a lifer in this industry.

I shall be glad to see the back of 2020 as it has not been in my ‘Top 10 Favourite Years’ and I imagine that applies to many of you. Our industry wings have not merely been clipped, but filleted, plucked and barbequed. We have been on a rollercoaster of will-we-wont-we open; seeing light at the end of the tunnel only for that to change… and change… and change. We have seen good people leaving our companies and industry due to the tightest of tightly pulled belts, and now have offices covered with so much Covid safety tape that they resemble crime scenes.

However, despite all of that, we have seen some deeply brilliant and inspiring things to come out of the madness. The rush to embrace digital platforms was exciting to watch in itself. Even more gratifying was the willingness of those early digital pioneers to share their learning with everyone. There is a saying: you don’t want to be a pioneer, lying dead on the ground with arrows in your back. Rather, you want to be a first settler, walking forward over the bodies of the pioneers lying dead on the ground with arrows in their backs…

The openness and generosity of those pioneers was massively helpful in allowing the first settlers to find ways to keep their markets engaged and to keep the lights on. Our exhibitors and sponsors still need to engage with their customers; they still want to attend our shows. In the absence of live events, however, they will go somewhere else if we don’t provide them with that route to market.

We have also seen the birth of the Women in Exhibitions UK Chapter and the movement starting to gain real traction with the mentoring programme underway and scores of women benefiting from the development training courses run by Shinesmith. Membership is now open and there are already some big companies putting their money where their mouths are to support the female talent in their business.

So, what do we have to look forward to in 2021?

It promises to be one of the most important years in the history of our industry. Careers and fortunes will be made by those willing to take calculated risks and seize opportunity, but to achieve that we need to make sure we are planning and looking ahead. The successful companies will be able to balance ‘just getting on with it’ with some hardcore planning.  There is a lovely quote by Abraham Lincoln, where he said: “If I had eight hours to cut a tree down, I would spend six sharpening my axe”. We don’t need six: our industry always works well in a primed environment. Two is enough for us, but the principle is sound.

January 2021 has to be a watershed for us. The companies that will survive and thrive going forward, despite the year we have had, will be those that took 2020 for the learnings it gave and then move forward quickly. We must hit the ground running at the outset, and run hard. The principle that ‘armies always fight the last war’ is one we in our industry need to be wary of.

While a few companies are venturing out into show land in the first half of the year, most are poised and ready for after the summer and it looks as if we will have ‘Tsunami September’ on our hands when it comes to live events. If organisers and their teams are going to be stretched thinly, then it will be amplified 10 times for stand builders, carpet fitters and so on. The role of the operations function will be even more important than ever before with those teams being stretched finely.

We must be creative with our solutions. Anyone who thinks the government messaging and direction will not change again has been hiding under a rock this year. There are more twists and turns for us to come and the whispered message coming to us from Westminster is “be creative with your solutions”. We need to look broadly at the recommendations, in the same way that retail and hospitality have, and find ways to operate safely, securely and successfully for the foreseeable future.

We will most likely have to stay prepared and Covid-ready for all of 2021 as I fear April 2021 not will be the absolute end that prime minister Boris Johnson promises. The vaccine programme rolling out is exciting but given the track record of botched supply chain with face mask delivery and let’s not start on the exam results fiasco, I wonder about the ability to deliver a highly complex, -70 degrees cold chain solution. The challenge of vaccine deterioration due to logistical challenges is very real and may result in people just being injected with posh water. So, our Covid safety plans need to be robust for some time.

Let’s not forget all we have learned with digital though. There are no parts of society where physical and digital do not live hand-in-hand and exhibitions will certainly not be the exception. To quote Simon Kimble from his acceptance speech for the AEO’s Lifetime Achievement Award: “People who seize the opportunity both offline and online will be the winners” – and he knows how to spot a winner. This is no longer an ‘either-or’ industry and if you think we will go back to how we were in 2019, then please let us know now so we can start the collection for your retirement.

I am not personally a fan of the hybrid event. Almost across the board, we see digital events delivering 50-70% new audiences as compared to the physical entity. That is a whole new community creating a whole new spin off that can drive decent incremental growth. Bring on ‘blended’, that’s what I say.

We have already seen the acquisition machine warming up again. While it never really stopped, I predict a rush of acquisitions and disposals in 2021, albeit with slightly more slimmed down multiples attached. Larger organisers, who may have been happy to carry non-core portfolios because of possible opportunity and offsetting of overhead, will be feeling less inclined to retain these and we will see an increasing number of interesting portfolios being released onto the market.

The rule of thumb is that you want to buy decent assets from distressed companies and not distressed assets from decent companies – looks like there is potential for the double positive this time round though. Also, watch the association space. This has always been a rich hunting ground for acquisitions elsewhere in the world and I can see the associations bumping up their stretched coffers with a few well-placed disposals.

I fear there will be a hole in the acquisition pipeline in 2-3 years. We rely on new launches that grow into decent launchpad events which the larger organisations hoover up to drive onwards and upwards. With the lack of these in 2020, we may well struggle with that pipeline in a few years’ time. What can the larger organisations do to help? Maybe the time has come to reach out to some of the start-up guys to help accelerate? The usual rules of engagement have been set back a year and if we want to ensure the pipeline stays strong, then we will need to be creative.

So, who will win? Smart companies who plan ahead while staying agile; those who embrace and retain what they have learned through the digital year and deliver blended solutions; individuals who are creative and brave but Covid safe.

2021, is going to be one hell of a ride. We are an industry made up from some of the most creative and brave people in business: bring it on.

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